* Ideal Standard’s fine is biggest at 326 million euros
* Sanitec, Roca, Villeroy & Boch, Grohe also fined
* Cartel ran from 1992-2004 in six EU countries
* Lower fines for five cash-strapped firms due to crisis
(Adds Ideal Standard, Wabco comments)
By Foo Yun Chee
BRUSSELS, June 23 (Reuters) - EU antitrust regulators fined 17 bathroom fittings companies a total of 622 million euros ($835 million) on Wednesday for fixing prices, with five receiving lower penalties because of the economic crisis.
The European Commission, the European Union’s competition watchdog, said the companies operated a cartel between 1992 and 2004 in Germany, Austria, Italy, Belgium, France and the Netherlands.
Ideal Standard International Group, which makes and sells American Standard bathroom ceramics and other products in Latin America, received the biggest fine at 326 million euros — a sum reduced by 30 percent for cooperating with the regulator.
The company said it did not have to pay the fine as it has an indemnity arrangement with U.S. auto safety system supplier Wabco Holdings Inc (WBC.N) and other third parties. Wabco said it would see a financial impact from the fine. [ID:nWNAB0492]
The other companies in the cartel include Artweger, Cisal, Dornbracht, Duravit, Duscholux, Grohe, Hansa, Kludi, Mamoli, Roca, RAF, Sanitec, Teorema, Villeroy & Boch (VIBG_p.DE) and Zucchetti.
Masco, a U.S. company whose main subsidiaries are Hansgrohe and Hueppe, received immunity as it was the first to provide information about the cartel, the Commission said.
“The cartel will have harmed businesses such as builders and plumbers and, ultimately, a large number of families,” Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in a statement. He said the Commission had not softened its fining policy despite the reduced penalties.
“We consider a positive reaction to an inability-to-pay request as an exception, not a rule,” Almunia told a news conference.
The 27-country European Union’s antitrust watchdog, which can fine firms up to 10 percent of annual sales for breaching EU rules, has levied more than 10 billion euros in penalties since 2004.
Grohe, Europe’s largest single-brand sanitary fittings maker, said in a statement that the fine would negatively impact its investment decisions and it was reviewing its legal options. (Reporting by Foo Yun Chee, editing by Dale Hudson and David Cowell)